No1 April 1994.1
African Roman Catholics will soon be taking part in an event of great importance not just for themselves, but for the universal Church. The event in question is the Synod for Africa, to be held in Rome from April 10 to May 8, 1994.
The Synod was called by Pope John Paul II on January 6, 1989. The African bishops had expressed a desire for a Council on African soil since the 1960s, although it was not until September 1977 that a concrete proposal was advanced by Cameroonian theologian Fabien Éboussi in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire.
Cardinal Malula of Zaire championed the proposal. However, the planned assembly never took place, because certain episcopal conferences were not prepared and some of the African Churches were not interested (12 of the 34 churches did not respond to the consultation). A few African bishops, notably from Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire, opposed the idea. But it rose again from its ashes when John Paul II suggested that an African Synod be held.
Why a Synod for Africa? Because Africa offers considerable potential for the future of Christianity(*). Africa has ever-growing numbers of baptized Christians and is fertile ground for the seed of the Word. And yet with great potential come great problems, which the young Churches are grappling with. Since the very beginning, they have had to deal with traditional religions. The two have not always coexisted peacefully, and the dangers of religious syncretism are still very real.
The theme of the assembly will be "The Church in Africa and its evangelizing mission in the year 2000: You will be my witnesses". The five major sub-themes (lineamenta) to be addressed grow out of this concern: primary evangelization, inculturation, interreligious dialogue, justice and peace issues, and the role of social communication media in evangelization.
Who will be at the assembly? In addition to the 82 members entitled to be present (presidents of regional and national episcopal conferences, African cardinals and heads of the curial departments concerned), 128 bishops elected by their peers will also be at Synod. Each African country will be represented, even if its Catholic community is very small. Nine priests and 11 religious elected by the regional conferences will be in attendance as well. And in addition to these 230 members of Synod, there will be some 60 observers: 16 male religious, 18 women religious and 26 laypersons, including 13 women.
Inevitably, criticism has been levelled at the Synod arrangements and accusations made that important issues have been left off the agenda. First of all, why hold a synod on Africa in Rome instead of in Africa? Is this Rome's way of keeping a tight rein on the continent's bishops? We want to make ourselves understood, even if that may upset a few people (...). We are going to Rome to discuss the real problems Africa is concerned about, retorts Bishop Agrée of Yamoussoukro in Côte d'Ivoire.
Among items not on the agenda -- which some feel should have been -- are basic Christian communities, pastoral approaches to marriage, the self-sufficiency of African communities and AIDS. With regard to this last point, experts have stated that AIDS will be Africa's major problem for the next 30 years. The current figure of 7 million who are HIV-positive is expected to almost triple by the year 2000. Millions will die. Many observers have been hoping to see this issue addressed responsibly.
The needs of young people are another pressing matter. They make up 60% of the population of Africa, and 40% of them are under 18 years of age. Is the Church listening to young people, who among other things are questioning the way the Gospel has been planted in African soil?
Some also find that four weeks is too short a period to deal with all the issues in a satisfactory manner. Interreligious dialogue alone could take up all the time allotted.
Finally, it is rumoured that many of the Western Churches are preoccupied with their own concerns, and are largely indifferent to this Synod.
Be that as it may, the Synod will take place as scheduled, and it will be what its participants want it to be.
Archbishop Schotte, Secretary General of the Synod in Rome, insisted that the various conferences of African bishops consult their grassroots believers. But will they be able to do something about their real concerns? It's hard to listen on an empty stomach, and the deliberations of the Synodal Fathers will have to be very "nourishing" indeed to interest the masses.
In the meantime, people need to be aware that this important assembly of the Church is taking place.
* Rapid growth of the African Churches
The Roman Catholic Church has experienced extraordinary growth in Africa during the past 40 years. From 11 million in 1949, the number of baptized Catholics is expected to increase to over 100 million by the year 2000. Out of the 311 Catholic bishops in Africa at the time of Vatican II, 60 were native-born Africans. Today, they represent 400 of the 500 bishops. The Churches of Africa are very diverse: most of the very first ones, in black Africa, are a little over a hundred years old. Even though Christianity existed in Ethiopia and Eritrea in the 2nd century A.D. and in Nubia (present-day Sudan) in the 4th century, most of the Churches are less than 50 years old. Their histories have been shaped by colonization or the presence of a missionary group as well as their degree of proximity to Islam.
Dominican René Luneau, an African specialist and instructor at the Catholic Institute in Paris, acknowledges this diversity, and singles out colonization and overly close ties with their missionary churches as two common weaknesses afflicting the African Churches.
According to missiologist Henri Venn, the African Churches often suffer from a lack of three types of independence: independence of decision-making, financial independence and apostolic independence, all of which are hallmarks of an adult Church. For instance, the African Churches are heavily dependent on financial transfusions. The percentage varies from Church to Church, but up to 90% of their budgets come from foreign sources.
Perhaps this is the real issue at the upcoming Synodal assembly: the independence of the African Churches.
N.B. The Synod for Africa is of interest not only to the universal Church but also to any group or organization working in the area of justice and peace. Any or all of the information contained in this bulletin may be reprinted.
Michel Fortin, M.Afr.